1 – The Accident: In the moment it is all a blur. In the ER. Sitting, waiting and watching. My friends are with me, providing comfort and picking up the pieces of my life that have suddenly left my grasp. Jerry calls the auto insurance company. Jan calls a neighbor to walk the dogs. Carla calls the school to let our son Taylor’s teachers know what has happened. Survival mode has kicked in for all of us. We are all in shock. The ER doc pulls me aside and tells me that Michael has a “closed head injury”. I can tell from his delivery of the “news” that this is not a good thing. But what is a head injury? What does that mean? No one tells me and I’m too in shock to ask. All I can do is relive over and over in my mind the last time we spoke that morning. Our last kiss. My last sight of him as he left that morning to take our son to pre-school and then head off to work. He is moved to Neuro ICU.
2 – The Back and Forth: The first week is the beginning of the roller coaster ride that would last for years to come. I revert to my science & somewhat clinical nature as a way to observe intellectually so that I don’t have to deal. The hall outside the Neuro ICU is lined with friends. Someone actually pulls me aside and tells me, “You know, Mike is going to die.” I stare at him blankly and am stunned that someone would do this. It is surprising when friends decide I need to be mothered or fathered. I am resentful of being treated in this manner. The nursing staff labels me in the medical record as “in denial”. I can feel the sympathy and the empathy. Through the whole strange and odd experience of continued shock, denial, hope, fear, gut-wrenching sadness I feel an undercurrent of “okayness” which I cannot explain – not even to myself. Is this denial or is this real? The staff never use the word “coma” with me. I find this odd. When people ask me if he’s in a coma I can’t answer the question. So I tell them that he’s “consciously unconscious”. I don’t know where I got that explanation; it’s what I feel. Two days after his accident, the miraculous happens. He awakens – albeit briefly. He says hello to his mom and speaks a few other sentences. We rejoice and celebrate that night. Then he goes back “in”.
3 – The Advice You Take: Time marches on in the Neuro ICU and as it does the reality of the injury that begins to sink in. The ER doc gives me the grim reality that there is no way to know if or how he will recover or what recovery will look like. He’ll most likely survive but what his quality of life will be is the big unknown. He informs me of the next clinical steps that will be taken. Trach, tube feeding, etc., etc. He leaves. I breakdown and it is the first time I allow myself to consider what it all really means. It is a moment of surrender and my first real experience of acceptance. His status reveals itself with a variety of complications (stomach blockages and several bouts of pneumonia). At a certain point during the Neuro ICU stay, another MD pulls me aside and reiterates that this will be a tough recovery and that I need to take care of myself. I must do what it takes to strengthen myself and take care of my needs. This will make me stronger when Michael comes home. He recommends that I watch a movie called “Regarding Henry” about a man who suffers a bullet injury to the brain. He tells me that the movie does a pretty realistic job of depicting what happens with brain injury. This was to be a “finger pointing at the moon” – directing me to discover for myself what is needed to navigate the journey.
4 – The Hate: After weeks of Neuro ICU, there is a slow progression of improvement. Michael is moved to the Neuro Step Down unit. And this is when the “fun begins”. As he moves through the stages of neuro recovery I move through my own. His stages are physically dynamic and not without their comedic moments. Mine are quietly internal. His involve cursing, pulling out trach and exposing himself to all. It is oddly entertaining as it provides levity to the seriousness of the situation. I settle into a schedule of spending a few hours everyday with him. I learn to suction his lungs through the trach. I complete all our Christmas cards. I sit by his side looking for some semblance of the man I married. I work to maintain daily balance and and normalcy for our son. He wonders when his daddy is coming home from the big building with the doctors and nurses. I am tiring of the wait too. We move to the next step – rehab hospital. I’m hopeful and once again, the next reality kicks in. I begin to realize and confess to a friend that it would have been easier had he died. I feel guilty and miserable. I visit him in the rehab hospital on the weekends – it is all I can manage. Being with him at this stage of his recovery becomes increasingly difficult.
5 – The Reality: After 4 1/2 months, Michael comes home. Friends wrap our house and trees in yellow ribbons. We’re all ready to get back to normal. I’m still in denial and even entertain the thought that he might return to work. And…I discover very quickly that life is totally different. I begin to realize my attachment to the subtle nuances of our life and relationship. Nothing is the same. As the reality of his future is recognized by the company he worked for, the move from “active employee” to permanently disabled employee occurs. Another level of my attachment is revealed. I have to make decisions on my own about insurance, finances, legal issues, home and all aspects of daily living that we shared before. It is now all on my shoulders. I am alone. Our friends are as uncomfortable as I and pull away. It hurts to be with him. I don’t blame them. It feels as though all the things I know and are familiar are being taken away.
6 – The Realizations: I realize that I am living with a stranger. I’m so attached to the one I love I now don’t know how to be with this new person. Most people either don’t want to admit or express out loud to me that he is different. They make excuses and try to make it okay. It is like living with a ghost. He looks basically the same but the expression is so different. Every so often the “old Michael” peeks out and I cling to those moments. His typical even-keel personality is now often subject to moments of angry outburst, lack of confidence and loss of initiative. It catches me off guard. His outbursts are sudden and energetically dynamic. Within moments he forgets what just happened. I on the other hand am “damaged goods”. The outbursts cut through me like a knife and each one a little deeper. I tell myself it is part of the process but it wears on me.
7 – The Change: I question whether or not my life will ever be normal again. What is normal? The entire time Michael was in the hospital and then after he came home, my focus was on his healing. It is not until he comes home and I begin to get a handle on what this life is going to be that I realize that I can’t do anything now about his “healing”. I can only do my own personal healing and facilitate that for our son. This is when I launch myself into my own personal, spiritual reclamation. And as I embark on this journey, I realize that the slate of my life has been wiped clean; thus giving me the opportunity to restage my life from this point forward. This is when I fully recognize and accept that the injury was to all of us – family & friends. It has set us each on a path of self-growth. Heal myself and I’m better for everyone else.
8 – The Withdrawal: The time of spiritual self-discovery and growth means a period of cocooning – going within. It becomes an “inside job”. I seem to move quite naturally into this process; it is the only way I can recover and rebuild. It teaches me responsibility for myself, my thoughts, my actions – my life. I learn how to be “fully” with myself – accepting the good, the bad and the ugly. It teaches me to stop judging myself – give myself a break. It teaches me gut-level honesty.
9 – The Acceptance: It is all about acceptance and as this realization dawns on me I begin to see life from a new perspective: not resisting life but embracing it as it is and as what is so. This whole experience reveals inner qualities of courage, honesty, integrity and compassion, previously covered up by self doubt, guilt and fear. It is at this point that I begin to feel gratitude for the “yellow brick road” nature of my life. I now feel patience and respect – with and for everything and everyone – most importantly me.
10 – New Normal Becomes Simply “Normal”: For a while I term my life as one of “living new normal”. As I stay with this, I find myself re-engaging with life and friendships. I lighten up on myself and my thoughts and actions with my husband. Basically, I lighten up on life. And then suddenly, I realize that this is not a “new normal” life. Life is simply normal. It is what it is. I’m accepting it in the moment without expectations for Michael or any other aspect of my life to be any different than what it is right now. I find myself living moment to moment. I feel strong not rigid. Accepting not weak. Gratitude not entitlement. Respect not separation. Content not ambitious. And as I complete these thoughts today, I realize that life is going to be what it is. I really don’t know what the future holds. All that really matters is Now.
I still think about those early days. I still feel the emotions as if they were happening right now. This will be with me forever. You can’t change the unchangeable. This life event transformed me forever, bringing me full face to myself. I’m grateful and humbled by it.